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Ottawa cuts water surveillance amidst warnings to heed global warming

OTTAWA – Environment Canada is cutting the scope of its water surveillance, internal documents show, even as Ottawa is being publicly warned to mind the serious effects of climate change.

A new report from the soon-to-be-defunct National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy warns that both business and government are dragging their feet in preparing for the inevitable effects of global warming.

At the same time, an internal memo from Environment Canada shows that budget cuts will require the department to scale back its monitoring of water — the very element that climate change most influences.

“The Sustainable Water Management Division is the most impacted,” John Moffet, director general of legislative and regulatory affairs at Environment Canada, says in a note to his colleagues explaining how some of the budget cuts will work. The note has been widely circulated among environmental activists.

“The work related to water use efficiency and conservation, including the Municipal Water and Wastewater Survey, will end; the work on surface water modeling will end.”

Other parts of the water monitoring operation will be split up and folded in to other areas of the department, says the memo.

The cuts to water and elsewhere on the environment file, along with new measures to streamline environmental assessment and to audit charities, amount to a giant blow, says John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.

“They are systematically dismantling the federal government’s ability to monitor the environment,” he said. “They would just like everybody to get out of the environment business.”

A spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent says the cuts in the area of sustainable water management will save $1.5 million, and no harm will come of it.

That’s because the programs in question duplicate services in water quantity — not quality — performed at other levels of government, spokesman Adam Sweet said.

“Duplication” is the same reason Kent has given for eliminating the National Round Table. Its $5-million budget will be cancelled at the end of this fiscal year because its services are available elsewhere from universities and think tanks, Kent has said.

Now, the round table president — hand-picked by the Conservative government — refutes that rationale.

David McLaughlin heads the advisory panel that has produced a string of hard-hitting reports that model the effects of climate change on the economy, and devised a solid carbon-pricing scheme to mitigate the effects.

“This is new and original information that we’re putting out,” he said in an interview.

“Maybe the government in some cases” produces some of the analysis that the round table is working on. “But that work isn’t always public,” McLaughlin adds.

The occasional think tank has done some similar work, too, but not in a systematic way or with the sophisticated modelling that has led to the round table breaking ground on detailing the probable effects of climate change, he said.

Indeed, the federal government itself has asked the round table for two major pieces of research over the past year, McLaughlin points out.

One of them is set to be published in a month’s time, and promises to be striking.

On the request of Kent, the panel has gone to every province and added up all the climate change mitigation efforts across the country. Its report will show how far the provinces and the federal government have come in meeting Ottawa’s greenhouse-gas emission targets for 2020.

Its most recent report, released Friday, sounded a warning that most businesses are woefully unprepared for the inevitable effects of climate change that are creeping up on them.

The report urges the government to “improve access to reliable, relevant, and user-friendly climate change information and related guidance.”

Both business and governments need to rethink the way they manage the risks associated with climate change, McLaughlin said.

“We say climate change is a material risk,” he said in an interview.

Previous analysis done by the round table shows that climate change will drain $5 billion a year from the Canadian economy by 2020. The costs will climb steeply after that, chopping Canadian economic activity by between $21 billion and $43 billion a year by 2050, depending on how much action is taken to reduce greenhouse gases by then.

Neither business nor government has plans in place to wrestle with the losses even though climate will eventually touch every sector of the economy, the report says.

It suggests that companies review all their activities through a climate lens, to figure out where they are vulnerable.

It also urges securities regulators to step up their enforcement of disclosure guidelines, to make sure companies are spelling out climate change risks for investors.

Government is not off the hook, the report stresses.

While Ottawa produces some information that could be of value to businesses planning for the future, it needs to do a better job disseminating relevant information to companies, in frank language, the report says.

Governments also need to be more mindful of how critical infrastructure will be affected by climate change, and make this information available to firms.

Plus, governments need to anticipate climate-related market failures and be ready to step in when necessary, the report says.

Government monitoring water quantity as well as quality during a time of environmental upheaval is crucial to business success, the report includes.

Says the report: “Changes in climate variables like temperature and precipitation and the physical impacts that flow from them — including shifting water availability and degrading permafrost — have a direct bearing on industrial processes, fixed assets like buildings, and commodities.”